Feature/Interview

#IWD2021: jazz publicist Lydia Liebman

Lydia Liebman is an accomplished media and music industry professional with experience as a publicist, concert promoter, radio host, musician, producer and journalist. Since she launched her own jazz-focused PR agency while still in college in 2011, she has represented more than 200 artists, led Grammy campaigns and landed concerts at renowned venues such as Carnegie Hall. Sebastian Scotney speaks to her about the many strings to her bow for International Women’s Day:

Lydia Liebman

Lydia Liebman. Photo credit Leslie Farinacci

First congratulations on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. What is the story, how does it work?

Thank you! I still can’t believe it. The yearly Forbes 30 Under 30 list includes about 600 different people across all fields – you’re nominated and then a committee decides who makes the cut. They reached out in October to let me know I was under consideration – which I was certain was a mistake – but I filled out the application they sent anyway and sure enough, in December I received the news that I’d been selected. I’m especially honoured because there’s very few representatives from jazz on these lists – I believe Cecile Mclorin Salvant made it a few years ago – and in the music category, there’s only one other female founder so it means a lot.

Is just a list or are there also some practical consequences of being on it?

In a pre-coronavirus world there would be events to attend and such, but without that everything has moved online. The community is really great and it feels really amazing to be part of it – even if it’s all virtual at the moment. Big picture though I see it as a wonderful opportunity for jazz – anytime one of us makes it somewhere like Forbes it’s good for everyone so making this list definitely propped the door open for more coverage opportunities at Forbes and other similar outlets. One of my proudest moments of the year thus far was securing a premiere for Thana Alexa’s outstanding video for “Ona” with Forbes. I had been working on bagging it for so long but the 30 Under 30 thing helped push it through. I hope to collaborate with Forbes more on jazz-related coverage and have been working on a few things.

Taking the clock back – music (and presumably musicians trying to enter the profession) was all around you as a child. 

Yes! Goes without saying that my childhood was full of music. Both parents had a revolving door of students coming in and out of the house at all times (my mom, Caris Visentin Liebman, is an ear training/oboe teacher and my dad is saxophonist Dave Liebman), plus I would go to concerts and gigs regularly. I grew up in the Pocono Mountains and there was – and still is – a very vibrant musical and artistic community there so a lot of my social hangs took place at the local jazz club, The Deer Head Inn. Music was around me 100% of the time.

Once I found myself behind the scenes, it immediately clicked

Were you ever tempted to become a musician yourself?

When I was very young I started with piano lessons, and eventually transitioned to voice, which I studied and focused on for the majority of my teenage years. I studied jazz and classical, and took part in all the usual stuff: drama camp, school musicals, chorus, all that stuff. I gigged locally and would sit in here and there with my dad on occasion – and I even recorded an album as a family project when I was 19 or 20. Performing is a joy, and at the time it definitely was my “thing” but I also knew relatively earlier on that it was not going to be my career because I was not in love with it. I suffer from performance anxiety (only when I sing though – nothing else, which is wild), and frankly, there were a lot of other things I enjoyed doing that took my attention at the time, thus preventing me from going ‘all in’ this route. Once I found myself behind the scenes, it immediately clicked in a way it never had when I was pursuing performance.

You were at Emerson College – what is their strength or focus, and what were you majoring in?

Emerson is one of the top Communications schools in the country, and it’s very connected up in the film/broadcasting world. I originally went in as a political communications major – I loved politics, and at the time (2009-2010) social media was starting to become a major player in political communication strategy. I dug it, but after one semester it became clear that this world wasn’t for me and I switched to the Visual Media Arts department and eventually earned a degree in Producing, which was much more in line with what I ended up doing. I minored in music appreciation, which was the only musical offering Emerson had at the time.

And I understand you also found yourself increasingly drawn towards Berklee College – what was happening there?

One of the points that attracted me to Emerson was that they had this exchange called the Pro-Arts Consortium, which allowed you to take classes from other arts schools in the area, including Berklee. Berklee immediately felt like home to me – I knew people there already, and I instantly felt connected to the whole thing so as soon as I was able, I took classes there. In the end I did half my course-load at Berklee (adding an extra class per semester since the credits were different), and it was there that I took all my music stuff including harmony, ear training, arranging, and business classes. Early on, I had gotten really involved with the Berklee Global Jazz Institute (BGJI) with Danilo Perez. I sat in all the forums, and got to know the programme well – I was sort of a student by proxy.    

And you started a successful student radio show?

Radio was, and still is, a true love of mine. Emerson was known for their station WERS – it’s one of the top student-run radio stations in the country – so I immediately got involved there. I started by hosting the overnight shift from 2am to 6am, playing mostly indie and alternative rock – the normal ‘college station’ fare. Simultaneously though I joined the internet station arm, WECB, and started a radio show called Reeds & Deeds II (named after my dad’s radio programme in college, hence the II). I was so into it that by my second year of school, I’d been promoted to GM of the station, and I ran the station, which included probably a hundred students all together, until I graduated. The radio show was the first time I saw the behind-the-scenes action up close, and the first time I became exposed to the promotional side of things. It was a great show – everyone from Chick Corea to Pat Metheny to Gregory Porter came on my show. I loved it.

What led you into becoming a jazz publicist? What was the first assignment?

I had become friends with a lot of musicians at Berklee and I noticed they were having shows, and only their friends were showing up. They didn’t really know how to promote their gigs. I didn’t either, but I did know I had a platform with my radio show so I’d have them come on to do interviews. To promote these interviews, I’d make a flyer and post it around Berklee to advertise. Eventually I started developing this route throughout Boston where I’d literally walk 10 miles and tape my posters up to the windows at local shops and stores throughout the city. All for a radio show on the internet! It hit me that I should start doing this for the gigs themselves, and thus LLP was born. The first concert I was paid to promote was Francisco Mela at the Regattabar. Eventually the BGJI folks got wind of this, and they asked me to come on to do PR for the programme and the many concerts they’d put on per semester. I took the gig, and learned on the job how to do practically everything relating to PR. From that point on, I had a pretty steady stream of work.

Lydia Liebman. Photo credit Leslie Farinacci

Lydia Liebman. Photo credit Leslie Farinacci

Was there already a direction set for your career by the time you left college?

When I graduated college I actually didn’t know what I wanted to do. I wanted to work in radio, but I also wanted to keep my PR stuff going, and I also was open to new opportunities in the music industry. Job searching was hard, and I didn’t get a whole lot of feedback on the positions I applied for. I had been writing for a NY-based education trade publication, Education Update, on and off since 2011, so when I moved to New York in 2014 I ramped up work there and became Senior Assistant Editor, and that floated me while I was figuring things out. I was getting consistent PR work, but it wasn’t sustainable until around late 2015, early 2016, which is when things really started to catch on. By the end of 2016, it became clear that I was a full-time publicist and that this is what I was going to be doing for the foreseeable future.   

Presumably being the daughter of a prominent jazz musician must have had advantages, but also as you were starting off, might have led to people putting their own interpretation on why you had got involved?

Totally. It was helpful obviously because I had organic connections growing up that helped me in this role, but it was also difficult, especially from colleagues, who definitely gave the impression that I was just doing this, or getting this client, or whatever, because of who my dad was. Overall, the jazz community has been immensely and incredibly supportive, but I certainly felt some imposter syndrome when I was starting out (honestly, I still feel that sometimes today – it’s hard to escape that), and this need to “prove myself” as my own person. The other challenge I had was that some of the editors and journalists I work with now met me when I was a kid, and some of them I think still saw me that way early on, so I was working against that perception as well in some cases. It’s been a journey to say the least.

Is there more than one way to be an effective publicist? What would you say is the secret? 

There are definitely different ways to be an effective publicist – every publicist operates differently, and what works for one might not work for others. Generally speaking though, there are basic qualities among publicists that remain consistent: strong communication skills, a working knowledge of current trends and the ability to invest in and maintain strong relationships. Personally, I think one of the “secrets” to our work is that it’s very personalised per artist – we create all our content in house, thus allowing us to get to know our projects extremely well, and appreciate them from different angles and perspectives.

What influences your decision as to what bands / releases to work on?

First and foremost, I need to like it and feel some connection to the music. It’s impossible to love everything, but liking it is essential because I need to feel confident in what I’m presenting to the media for coverage. Then I look at other factors – what’s their overall visibility, what’s their digital footprint, what are their goals and are they realistic, etc. Sometimes I’ll love the music, but stylistically it won’t be a fit, or maybe we have other artists releasing at the same time that are similar… there’s a lot that goes into these decisions. I try to keep a healthy balance too of established artists vs debuts, so that factors in as well. Lastly, it helps if the artist is a nice person, and if you gel personality-wise. I work closely with my artists, and it’s going to be an ongoing relationship for a while – so it helps if there’s a good rapport and positive vibe, and it makes me more inclined to say yes.

Who is in your team and what scale are you now working at?

Right now we’re running campaigns in the US, UK and Latin America – plus some additional territories on a case-by-case basis. I have a couple of very talented folks who work with me on a part-time basis, along with my husband, who works on our Latin American campaigns and helps me with some of the day-to-day. We will most likely be expanding our team this year. Stay tuned!

How is the market changing? Are there things that you have worked on recently where you have been aware of new channels emerging?

COVID changed absolutely everything. Nothing has been left unaffected. The way we listen to and enjoy music has changed: people are at home, digesting music at a rapid pace thanks to streaming services; the way we experience live music has changed too, for the most part, a solely virtual experience; and the media landscape has been completely altered. Arts coverage was hanging by a thread before COVID… now, there are very few publications left unscathed at this point due to downsizing and diminishing budgets. Plus, we’ve been up against a relentless new cycle that’s increasingly difficult to compete with. Pretty much every release I worked in the past year faced these unprecedented challenges and I’ve been forced to recalibrate and figure it out.

The biggest challenge for me early on was when I teamed up with the Live From Our Living Rooms cohort (Thana Alexa, Sirintip and Owen Broder) to help run PR for the “first jazz festival of the quarantine era” (so said Rolling Stone!). This was an all-virtual event with artists like Chick Corea, Christian McBride and Bill Frisell on the bill, and I honestly had no idea how the press would react to it. Pre COVID, it had been very difficult to draw press interest in virtual events – but obviously all of that changed when it became the only option. I was pleased to see the festival pick up a tonne of interest, and I think it set the bar for what an event like that could be.

Can a really favourable review still make a difference?

Definitely. Of course the degree to which it makes a difference is dependent on where the review appears, as well as what the artist does to promote said review, especially on social media channels. A great review that nobody sees doesn’t do much to help.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever had as publicist that you would want to pass on to your younger self or to people entering this sphere?

I would tell my younger self, and budding publicists, to be patient. Relationships are not built overnight. Much like I tell my artists – publicity really is a marathon rather than a sprint, and it takes a long time to build a brand and develop an audience. The same principle applies.

I’m always looking to lift up the amazing women I work with

This is an IWD feature. Are you pro-active in ensuring that female artists / bandleaders are represented among the people you represent as a publicist?

Yes. There are lots of female instrumentalists and vocalists on the roster at any given time and I’m very proud of that. I’m always looking to lift up the amazing women I work with, and I am always working to ensure that they’re given an equal opportunity for meaningful coverage. It’s also very important to me that my artists are covered fairly – I have no problem calling out a journalist for asking questions that could be interpreted as sexist, or asking for a line to be removed from a review that implies something sexist in nature (yes, I have had critics speculate on a female artist’s ability in the kitchen before and yes, it made me scream). As a woman working in a very male-dominated field, I’ve experienced my fair share of this behaviour, so I’m very conscious of it when it comes to my clients. Amplifying female voices is a major priority for me.

Just one more request: make three wishes,  any three wishes,  for the next 12 months…

  1. To get back to the club. I miss live music desperately, and I can’t wait for the time we’re safely allowed to be back in a jazz club. I can’t believe it’s going on a year since my last real concert.
  2. Togetherness. It’s been a long and lonely year, and I look forward to when we can be together again as a community in person.
  3. That we collectively appreciate the masters that still walk among us. There’s been a lot of loss over the past year, and so many giants of this music have transitioned. We need to appreciate those that are still here.

LINKS: Lydia Liebman website

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